BOSTON, MA—It’s been six long months since the California Kwijibos skated to their first ever World Hockey League championship. For nearly 200 days, 17 other franchises and fan bases were left to stew over what could have been, and to plan for the road ahead. Now, with the eighth season of WHL action underway, the waiting is finally over. The Kwijibos look poised to mount a formidable title defense, two-time champion Lokomotiv Yukon has undergone new management, and a slew of rule changes have opened the gates as we churn full steam ahead on the Dynasty Express.
The Mount Vernon Blades, always one of the most active teams on the trade market, have re-acquired two familiar faces from the Brooklyn Cyclones. Veteran Martin St. Louis and goalie Antti Raanta rejoin the Blades after spending most of the 2013-14 season in Mount Vernon. Heading to Brooklyn are goalie Steve Mason and sophomore forward Sean Monahan. This was already the second trade in the first week of WHL action. Immediately following the draft, the Boston Beernuts flipped first round selection Craig Anderson to the Wolfsburg Vipers for Sven Baertschi and Wolfsburg's 2015 fist round pick.
Paul Zeman’s Kwijibos aren't as stacked as they were last season (yet), but this team will compete. Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak return in goal, joined by newcomer Jake Allen, whom Zeman plucked at last season’s RFA auction for a cool $5. While Logan Couture is looking more like Patrice Bergeron every year, and Radko Gudas is a lock to continue doing the Monster Mash, a big part of the Kwijibos attack could fall on the shoulders of Patric Hornqvist. Zeman took a chance on this guy, drafting him ahead of Bobby Ryan and Rick Nash, but the chance is there for Hornqvist to take advantage of his plush new real-life surroundings and see Zeman’s faith rewarded.
Everyone knows that a contending team is usually deep down the center, but the Portland Pints are taking that time-honored philosophy to a new level. After approaching the podium with Sidney Crosby and a dynamic Swedish trio of Nicklas Backstrom, Mikael Granlund and Mikael Backlund already under contract, Pints GM Colin Smith proceeded to add Jonathan Toews and Martin Hanzal just for good measure. The Pints are once again looking stacked in goal with the return of Bobrovsky and Lehtonen, however, there are plenty of solid goalie partnerships around the league. Take for example, King Henrik and Mike Smith, who seem to have been patrolling the West Palm crease forever, or the formidable triad of Ben Bishop, Braden Holtby, and Frederik Andersen in Beantown. For all of the talent around the league though, it’s hard to beat what’s cooking in Sagniaw, where steady veteran Roberto Luongo complements the premier tender of the modern age, Tuuka Rask, and with Darcy Kuemper looking ready for heavier lifting.
Big surprises are generally hard to come by in the early rounds, but we always seem to have a few. Brian Elliott was taken before Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews. True to form, GM Joseph Mastrangelo of the Boston Beernuts delivered the first off-the-board selection of the draft, taking Sam Reinhart towards the end of the third round ahead of more established options such as Martin Hanzal, Brent Seabrook, and Brayden Schenn. Rumor has it that Boston is already starting to print McDavid jerseys, although that could change quickly when GM Joe Mastrangelo inevitably decides to trade all of his rookies by Christmas.
Auto Bots Unite!
An unprecedented seven (call it six and a half once everyone showed up) teams were on autopilot at the draft this year. Putting aside the obvious disappointment that comes with nearly a fourth of the league not being able to attend, the flip side is that more “safe” picks were distributed across a greater number of teams than in past years. This means that the annual musings about how so many teams look competitive on paper, and how it’s “anyone’s year” have a little more oomph behind them this time around. Automation also led to an interesting run on seven defensemen in the second round, which may have prompted a few owners to pluck from the d-man well a bit earlier than anticipated in subsequent rounds.
Easy There, CHEEF
Since taking the reins for two-time champion Lokomotiv Yukon, first year GM Kyle Hamel has come out of the gates swinging. Hamel is new, but he’s hardly a rookie—flashing his six years of fantasy hockey experience by signing some excellent contracts, followed by a remarkably balanced draft. Hamel keenly balanced proven players like Bobby Ryan and Daniel Sedin with blue chippers Aaron Ekblad (4th round, 60th overall) and David Pastrnak (9th round, 150th overall). The newly christened Northern CHEEFS look ready to continue the Lokomotiv tradition of competing now without leaving the cupboards bare. For all of Hamel’s impressive management thus far, it’s hard to rationalize his decision to take Brian Elliott in the first round. Still, I’ll have an apology letter on standby for when Elliott leads the league in shutouts and paces the CHEEFS to a successful debut.
Bro power is all the rage in the WHL, with two pairs of real-life NHL brothers currently wearing the same WHL uniform. The CHEEFS reunited Henrik Sedin with brother Daniel by drafting the latter 24th overall, and the Beernuts followed suit, plucking Sam and Griffin Reinhart in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. Naturally, this brovalanche extends from the ice all the way to league offices. ‘Nuts owner Joe Mastrangelo and Wolfburg’s Mike Greeley are brothers on the real, as are Michael and Mario Zecca of Brooklyn and New Jersey, and Alex and Joe Dahms, co-owners of the Altoona Angry Beavers. Sibling bias certainly contributed to one of the more entertaining moments of the draft, when the Stuttgart Scorpions sniped Johnny Gaudreau from Mastrangelo with the very pick after Mastrangelo insisted on completing his aforementioned Reinhart duo.
What’s New in Review
In case you missed out on previous league emails or simply need a refresher, here’s a rundown of what’s new for 2014-15. Goals, assists, and goals against were all increased by 0.1, bringing the respective totals to +1.9, +1.1, and -1.6.. As you have surely noticed by looking at the standings, we no longer have physical JWHL teams. Instead, everyone's bench has been expanded to seven spots, and you are free to fill those spots with any players in the ESPN universe. Another significant change that you should familiarize yourself with if you haven't already -- player activations. Activating a player means moving him from your bench into your active lineup, and clicking save. You get 450 activations for the entire season (including playoffs) and it's up to you to pace and monitor your usage throughout the season. Also note that moving a player from one active roster spot to another (e.g. from D to Utility) does NOT count as an activation, since the player was already active. In other fresh biz, once players become eligible for in-season signing you will have the option to sign them for a max of four years. In addition, the salary cap has been increased to $400 and there is no longer a keeper limit. This means you could sign a smaller number of all-stars, an entire roster of cheap players, or some combination therein.